DYNASTIES APART

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For generations of Indians used to bemoaning the dynastic culture in our politics, this year’s Republican primaries in the United States are eye-opening in more ways than one. In an election where every candidate seems to be vying with each other to look crazier than the other, for the Tea Party vote, one rather under-reported feature that stands out is the dynastic roots of many of the Presidential hopefuls and the unusual role of family in political imagery.

The current frontrunner Mitt Romney is the son of a three-term Michigan governor and a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Nixon years. George Romney himself was a presidential candidate in 1967 before famously self-destructing in a TV interview where he talked of US generals “brainwashing” him while on a fact-finding mission in Vietnam.

The junior Romney’s publicly stated determination not to repeat the mistakes of his father’s campaign has the making of a psycho-drama that is reminiscent of another American dynasty – remember George W. Bush’s “this is the guy who killed my daddy” remark when asked why he had invaded Iraq.

Of the other five hopefuls, Jon Huntsman’s billionaire father also worked for the Nixon White House, was once chairman of the Western States Republican Leaders and has been a leading light of the Republican Party in Utah for years; Ron Paul’s son is already a senator from Kentucky, who first came to prominence making speeches for his father in previous campaigns; and Rick Perry’s father was elected for years as a County commissioner. Only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have no family background in politics, like President Obama, the man who in 2008 symbolised the myth of the American dream.

So, is US politics all that different then from Indian politics, occupied as it is currently with the riveting Badal family soap opera in Punjab, the ups and downs of the Yadav clan in UP, the flip-flops of Ajit Singh and, of course, the perennial dynastic elephant in the room – the Gandhi family?

The role of the candidates’ families in the Republican primaries has has never seemed bigger or more prominent. Jon Huntsman’s three daughters and four of Mitt Romney’s sons have become media stars campaigning for their fathers. Several of Ron Paul’s children have been doing interviews on his behalf and Rick Santorum’s daughter works for his campaign.

But this can be explained by the fact that putting family in front in the US also works as a subtle message about family values. The real question is if the children of US politicians really control politics as much as the children of Indian politicians do?

Recent research on dynastic politics shows that among Indian Members of Parliament, about 29% are those whose family members preceded them in politics. Another 5% had family members either enter politics simultaneously, or follow them into Parliament, according to data compiled by the political scientists Kanchan Chandra and Wamiq Umaira. Compared to this, the most recent data on dynastic politics in the US shows that only about 10 percent of US Congressmen or women have a close relative who also served in the House or Senate.

From Al Gore to Nancy Pelosi to Hilary Clinton, Washington is full of politicians with dynastic roots too, except that the proportion is lower than ours. It used to be much higher. Brown University’s Professor Pedro Dal Bo, who co-wrote a report on American dynastic politics, points out that a full 45% of the first US Congress in 1789 had a relative who was also serving but the family links went down over time.

Until recently, that is. A US politician holding office for more than one term is now 40 percent more likely to have a relative in Congress in the future than other members.

The real difference between American and Indian politics is that while family ties work as great brand-value in the US; in India, they also bequeath a form of feudal lordship over party machinery and control. Few US politicians who descend from political families can ever aspire to actually control their parties anywhere close to the manner in which a Sukhbir Singh Badal or an Akhilesh Yadav does in India.

A political background may give an American candidate a head start in name-recognition terms, but rarely a pre-packaged political platform that can essentially can be run as a family- controlled company, as many of our younger dynastic politicians are used to.

But that gap may now be closing and however imperfect our democracy, dynastic politics is by no means an Indian or South Asian preserve.